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Biographical entry Avery, John (1807 - 1855)

MRCS May 8th, 1829; FRCS Dec 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows; MD Paris, 1831.

3 March 1855
London, UK
General surgeon


A pupil of William Cother, a very able surgeon, at the Gloucester Hospital, which, being situated in the midst of an extensive manufacturing district, gave abundant opportunities for practice in the art of operative surgery. The surgeons of that day were not generally operators, and consequently all operative surgery in the county and even in South Wales was concentrated in the hospital and in the private practice of its surgeons. Under Cother and his colleague, R Fletcher, young Avery proved an observant pupil. Entering St Bartholomew’s Hospital “he spent the greater part of his time either in the wards or the dissecting-room. Here he laid the foundation of that distinction as an operating surgeon which he afterwards reached.” He devoted much of his time to minute dissections of the dead body, and became an excellent anatomist.

After qualifying he went to Paris and took the MD degree, but did not use the title. From Paris he travelled through different countries and continued his studies. He possessed ample means, but was never tempted to become an idler. Whilst he was in Italy there was war in Poland, and he conceived the idea of entering the Polish service, where he was at once appointed Surgeon-in-Chief to the 5th Polish Ambulance. He was made prisoner, lost his papers and baggage which were seized by the Russians and, being unable to communicate with his friends, lived for many months on an allowance of tenpence a day. After his release he began practice as a consultant in London, and was appointed Surgeon to Charing Cross Hospital in 1841.

At the time of his death, he had accomplished much that was original in practice, particularly in the treatment of cleft palate with large deficiency of bone, in the treatment of urethral stricture, and in the inspection of the internal canals of the body. By means of his lamp, tubes, and reflectors he was able to examine the ear, urethra, bladder, oesophagus, and larynx, as probably no surgeon had ever examined them before him. He was the originator of an improved method of treating cleft palate in the worst cases of this malformation, by dissecting the soft palate away from the vault of bone, and uniting the flaps thus obtained in the centre. In this way he cured cases which his more skilful contemporaries had attempted in vain. He had also made improvements in the exploration and treatment of stricture. He published nothing on this last subject, for he was waiting, as he told his admiring friends, to perfect his views. His only formal publications were his papers in the Lancet in 1850 on cleft palate. With him, operations, particularly in their results, were a source of pleasure – of real enjoyment. No sculptor, no artificer in silver or gold, ever viewed his work with more delight than that with which he contemplated his operations when, as was generally the case, they turned out well. A handsome stump, a symmetrical fracture, an effaced hare-lip, a cleft palate restored, a stricture relieved, would give him the most heartfelt satisfaction. For his invention of a lamp for the examination of the outer passages of the body Avery received two medals, one from HRH Prince Albert, as President of the Society of Arts, and the other from the adjudicators of the Great Exhibition in 1851.

For some time before his death he suffered from an obscure disease, which he and others suspected to be a malignant affection of the stomach. He was frequently harassed by vomiting and extreme pain, and to assuage these took inordinate quantities of opium and chloroform. Of the latter he inhaled sometimes three or four ounces in a day. He died at his residence, Queen Street, Mayfair, on March 3rd, 1855, and must have been literally starved to death. So popular was he that his decease excited much attention, and a post-mortem examination showed evidence of generalized tuberculosis. His brother and sister had both died of phthisis.

“Illustrations of the Successful Treatment of Cleft Palate by the Division of the Levator Palati and Palato-pharyngeus, and sometimes the Palato-glossus Muscles.” – Lancet, 1850, ii, 337.
“An Apparatus for Exploring the Internal Cavities of the Body.” This was an endoscope somewhat similar to that used by Segulas at Naples in 1827, and by Warden, of Edinburgh, in 1844.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Biographical Account by Macleod Yearsley. – Proc. Roy. Soc. Med. (Sect. Hist. Med)., 1913, vi, 240. William Hunter’s Historical Account of Charing Cross Hospital and Medical School, 1914, 130, 131. Lancet, 1855, i, 275, 331].

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